Biscuits To Die For

Greg Atkinson is a great guy, and he makes fantastic biscuits – He also happens to be a real deal big time Chef. From the Friday Harbor House on San Juan island, to Canlis in Seattle, and now Restaurant Marché on Bainbridge, (his current masterpiece), Greg has been seminal to the development of Pacific Northwest cuisine as a genuine force to be reckoned with. He’s won a James Beard M. F. K. Fisher Distinguished Writing award, and authored a handful of excellent northwest cookbooks. And, he posts pictures of those lovely little things pretty much every week, which instantly makes you crave biscuits – Biscuits to die for.

The incomparable Greg Atkinson
The incomparable Greg Atkinson

When we say ‘Biscuit,’ we really do have to define what we’re talking about, because it’s a broad definition indeed – Pilot bread is a biscuit, as is a saltine cracker, actually – And those are a far cry from the golden, flaky little gems that just got pulled outta my oven. The version I make owe their origin story to tthe American south, (as do rolled or beaten biscuits). These days, you can find them everywhere, as it should be.

This form of biscuit is essentially a quick bread, a combination of flour, leavening, milk, fat, and a little salt. Of course, every cook has their preferences for most of those constituents – Milk or buttermilk, butter or lard, soft southern flour, or harder northern varieties – Fact is, they’ll all make great biscuits if you handle things right.

So, what is it we’re after then, if we’re looking to make a great southern style biscuit? The terms that get bandied about most are tender and flaky, but the fact is, those two words really mean quite different things. Down South, folks prefer their biscuits tender, and that means they’re made from a fairly wet dough, what’s often called a drop biscuit – That produces a fairly dense crumb, quite like a muffin. Flaky, on the other hand, implies defined layers in the finished product, and while they’re still quite light when done right, they’re definitely a bit chewier than their southern cousins – And generally, that’s how northern folks, (where I’m from), like ’em – This is the dough Greg uses, and gave me the insight into, and is what I make now – One day last spring, he posted a bare bones recipe, which is just what I like. I’ve been working on this for about 6 months, getting the process and ingredients just right – I can reproduce this pretty much anywhere, which means you can too.

Now, I’ve no illusions that what I’m about to share is totally unique, ’cause it’s not. For one thing, it’s Greg’s recipe, tweaked a little, which is pretty much how all recipes are passed along. It’s the process steps he shared and I’ve adopted that are the real trick to the game. Greg’s offering was, in fact, slightly cryptic. He mentions shortening and butter in the very brief narrative, but then doesn’t list shortening in the ingredients. He said that the dough is ‘never really mixed or kneaded in the conventional sense,’ and nothing else about working it. He baked in a ‘very hot oven,’ – Now, I don’t think he was being purposefully difficult – It was literally a couple of pictures and a paragraph he’d posted in response to somebody who’d pestered him for a recipe. While it took a few months to figure things out, it was enough for me to work with.

This version of biscuit dough isn’t a short dough, though many folks think that it is – Short, in the baking context, refers to a high ratio of fat to flour, as well as the presence of sugar. While biscuits are rich, they’re not particularly fatty, and there’s no sugar at all in the mix, (at least not in my recipe) – The recipe I’ll share has 12 ounces of fat to 5 cups of flour, or slightly under a 1:4 ratio – Compare that to shortbread, where the fat to flour ratio is 1:2, and you get the picture.

So, what is the magic then? The best way I can describe the overarching principle is this – It’s like pie crust, which means that, the more you fuck with the dough, the less you succeed. Now, that’s a simple enough statement, but it doesn’t really do much towards explaining the details of what you should and shouldn’t do. There is a series of seemingly minor but vital steps to take, and as with all doughs, batters, etc, how you handle them is absolutely as critical to success as the stuff they’re made of.

What we’ve got is fat, (butter and oil), suspended in flour and liquid, (milk). The first challenge a biscuit maker faces is how to get the butter well distributed through the flour-milk paste. The primary enemy here is heat, and what do most cooks do to distribute butter? Cut it into cubes and then work it by hand into the infamous ‘Pea sized’ thing we read in all the cook books – Trouble is, our hands melt the butter and warm the flour, and that’s pretty much counter-productive. The way to counteract this is to have everything except the oil as cold as possible, and to keep your paws, for the most part, out of the mix. More on that shortly.

Another old saw about the formation of doughs worth visiting is the supposition that what we’re forming is tiny pockets of flour, coated with fat, but the fact is that has it absolutely ass backwards – What really happens is that is that the flour/liquid slurry coats tiny little pockets of fat – Now, think about that for a sec, and when you do, a light comes on, ’cause that makes a hell of a lot more sense. While the degree of mixing will always vary, the fact that the flour/liquid mix encapsulates the fat helps us understand why that whole business with the butter is a great idea – That and the fact that it just plain works.

Now, for the final bit of science, with an apology to all of you who aren’t food science geeks, (but it’s actually important). Harken back to where we discussed the two primary types of American biscuits, the tender and the flaky – Turns out that the key to these is predominantly determined by… (Wait for it…), how we handle the dough. The former, the southern biscuit, requires enough manipulation to construct layers of the flour/liquid slurry and fat, AKA, working that dough enough for gluten to develop to a significant degree, while the latter, the flaky northern version, absolutely demands minimal handling in order to keep gluten from developing at all – And that’s saying a mouthful. In other words, to build these biscuits we’re talking about here, you really cannot do anything more than reasonably combine the ingredients, period – And fact is, that is exactly what Greg was talking about when he wrote that these biscuits are, ‘never really mixed or kneaded in the conventional sense,’ AKA, full circle, eh?

So on to the finale – marching orders. As always, you reap what you sew, so use ingredients as fresh and local as you can – In something this simple, ingredient quality is everything, and subpar or old stuff truly won’t taste very good – One more word to the wise, as we’ve covered here before, leaving agents like yeast, baking soda or powder do have expiration dates, and old stuff will not work well, if at all, so check yours and get fresh before you get started.

Biscuits to die for - Its all in the proper prep
Biscuits to die for – Its all in the proper prep

Genuinely Flaky Biscuits

5 Cups All Purpose Flour
2 Cups Whole Milk
6 Ounces Butter
6 Ounces Avocado Oil
2 Tablespoons Baking Powder
1 teaspoon Sea Salt

At least a day before you build, pop a pound of butter into the freezer and leave it there – It can be your go-to stash for baking.

Add flour, baking powder, and salt to a mixing bowl and whisk to incorporate thoroughly.

Put the bowl and contents into the freezer for at least an hour prior to mixing, and longer if you like – Overnight is fine.

When you’re ready to mix, pull a stick of frozen butter and use the medium shred on a box grater to process 6 ounces. Toss the butter into the mixing bowl with your dry ingredients and return it to the freezer for 15 minutes after grating.

Preheat your oven to 450° F.

Grab something nice and thick and heavy to bake in or on – I use a pizza stone, but a cast iron pan works just fine too.

Pre-measure 6 ounces of avocado oil and set aside at your prep area.

Pull your chilled bowl, and add the milk and oil to the other ingredients.

Now, when it’s mixing time, that means, in this instance, absolutely minimal – Think of something like Belgian waffles, where you need to fold beaten egg whites into the rest of the batter – You work carefully, delicately, so that you don’t smoosh all the air out of those whites you’ve just worked so hard to beat – That’s the concept here – Carefully and slowly fold everything with a wooden spoon or the side of a spatula, just enough to reasonably incorporate all the ingredients, and no more.

Turn the dough out of the bowl onto a cutting board, and gently pat it into a round, about 1″ thick.

Use a glass, can, whatever works for you that will let you cut biscuit rounds out of the block.

Place biscuits on your stone/pan – Ideally, you’d like about a half inch or so between each.

When you get to the scraps of your dough, just gently hand form the last biscuit or two.

Bake until golden brown, about 15 minutes.

Devour with abandon.

Five Spice is good for way more than just Chinese cooking.

Chinese five spice powder – Got it in your spice cabinet? Odds are good that you do, but they’re also good that you haven’t used it for anything other than that one Chinese recipe you tried way back when and bought the stuff for – Am I right or am I right? I’m here today to fix that, and to tell you why you should -Five Spice is good for way more than just Chinese cooking.

Classic Five Spice, although more is OK
Classic Five Spice, although more is OK

So, what exactly is five spice? That depends, frankly, on where in China you ask the question. This blend is relatively ubiquitous in Chinese cooking, and culinary regions from all points on the compass points lay claim to its origin. There is, however, some general agreement about the intention of that ancient founder – To provide the culinary equivalent of Unified Field Theory – one powder to rule them all – Five spice touches on sweet, sour, bitter, heat, and salty – A blend for all things, if you will.

Now, that said, five spice is as unique as any other legendary thing. What that means is that every home cook, restaurant chef, and spice purveyor has their tried and true personal blend, and each and every one of those is the best, no questions asked. Truth be told, they’re all correct, because when you make it yours, its exactly what you want it to be – That’s the beauty of discovery and refinement. The end result of today’s exercise should be just that for y’all.

The big question, of course, is this – What are the Five Spices? Turns out, the title is a bit misleading. Take a look at the ingredients on the commercial stuff out there and you’ll find anywhere between five and ten ingredients – Interesting, yeah? That’s because ‘Five Spice’ speaks to the five flavors the blend contains – Sweet, sour, bitter, heat, and salty – Cover those, and the number of ingredients used to achieve it is open for interpretation.

The generally recognized standard however, is star anise, clove, Chinese cinnamon (Cassia), Szechuan pepper, and fennel seed, but again, you might also find regular cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, licorice, anise, turmeric, black pepper, sea salt, and mandarin orange peel as well. There’s nothing wrong with all that, frankly, though as with all things in discovery, it’s best to go to the classic roots first, and then branch out to make it yours.

For us here in the U.S., the blend has an exotic feel to it that can be a real treat for breaking up the ol’ routine. The combination of what Chinese culinary tradition refers to as hot (cinnamon and Szechuan pepper), and cold (fennel and clove), tastes does a really cool double duty with meats, especially fatty stuff – It highlights richness as it cuts through the fat – A neat trick, that.

If you have Asian grocers in your area, check them out and see if they make their own blends – If not, they’ll likely have a favorite that they sell – Diving into those is like touring the regions and towns folks come from – You’ll get a different swing on things from each one.

So, what exactly would you use this stuff on when you whip it out? The quick answer is that five spice is tailor made for proteins – Beef, pork, and poultry will all shine, (and frankly, you can’t make great char sui pork without it), as will tofu, and beans. For dang near anything you’re going to grill, barbecue, or smoke, it makes a fantastic rub. Five spice does great in flour, starch, or bread crumb coatings for fried foods, too. And frankly, there’s nothing in there that wouldn’t go great with savory eggs and veggies. And believe it or not, it’s great for baking too – Add it to a savory scone, pancake, or waffle recipe, for instance.

A note of caution for using five spice on things other than fatty meats – The blend can overpower a recipe really quickly, so a little bit goes a long way. The blend does best when it has some time to work, so employing it in marinades and rubs works best.

The gist of all this is that while five spice is a necessity for many Chinese dishes, it’s great to think outside the box and try it with other stuff as well – It’s easy enough to add a dab to a sample of something you’re cooking – A great way to expand your horizons. This is a blend that, while fundamentally simple, belies that label with a truly fascinating and complex palette of flavors.

Here’s a basic recipe to get you started – Again, use it as a springboard to tailor your own custom blend. As with all herbs and spices, freshness and quality are critical. Harkening back to that bottle you’ve got in your cabinet, chances are good it’s old, and maybe not the best stuff you could find, right? So, go to a known, high quality purveyor like World Spice, Penzey’s, or Penderey’s and buy your stuff there – They really truly don’t cost more than the junk in most stores, and the quality is far superior. Finally, it’s always a good idea to buy whole spices when available as well – They’ll stay fresher longer.

House made Five Spice
House made Five Spice

Classic 5 Spice Blend

1 Tablespoon whole Szechuan Peppercorns
3 whole Star Anise
1 stick Cassia Bark (AKA Chinese Cinnamon)
2 teaspoons whole Cloves
2 teaspoons whole Fennel Seed

Allow a dry, cast iron skillet to heat through over medium heat.

Add Szechuan pepper, star anise, cloves, and fennel seed to the pan. Toast the spices until they’re notably fragrant, about 3 to 5 minutes. Keep the spices moving constantly to avoid scorching.

Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Add the toasted spices and cassia to a spice grinder, blender, mortar and pestle, or whatever you use to grind spices. Pulse the blend to a uniform rough powder.

Store in a clean glass container with an air tight lid – Keep in mind that all spices like a cool, dark, dry environment for storage. Spices are good for about 6 months, properly stored.

 

Here’s a couple of rubs to get you started.

5 Spice Java Dry Rub

2 teaspoons 5 Spice Powder
1 teaspoon fresh ground Coffee
1 teaspoon Dark Brown Sugar
1 teaspoon Sea Salt

 

5 Spice Wet Rub

1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil
Juice & Zest from 1 small Lemon
1 Tablespoon 5 Spice
1 teaspoon Sea Salt

 

Salt Cured Egg Yolks

There’s no telling how long people have been preserving eggs. As one of natures most amazing sources of energy and great taste, there’s always been great interest in having them available whenever desired. Whether by brine, smoke, or chemistry, there are a bunch of ways to do it. And it’s a natural progression to go from preserving the whole egg to just focusing on the yolk, since that’s where all the really good stuff is – and if you’re going to do that, there’s nothing easier or more effective that a simple salt cure.

Egg yolks are a nutritional powerhouse. All the fat and roughly half the protein an egg possesses is in there, along with a very long list of other things – carbohydrates, amino acids, vital trace nutrients, minerals, vitamins, and yeah, a healthy shot of cholesterol, but that’s had a bad rap for far too long. Donald K. Layman, Professor Emeritus of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Illinois has gone so far as to say that, “cutting dietary cholesterol is almost irrelevant when it comes to promoting healthy blood cholesterol levels and heart health.” While that’s not an endorsement to go off and start an all Twinkie diet, it does get eggs and a bunch of other formerly vilified foods off the hook.

Century Egg - Seriously acquired taste
Century Egg – Seriously acquired taste

There are a raft of preserved egg and yolk examples out there. The Chinese alone have been doing this for hundreds of years, exemplified by the so called Century Egg, which appeared in Hunan province during the Ming Dynasty. This, like rotten shark, is an acquired taste to say the least – They make durian seem tame – and yes, I’ve tried one, and I won’t do it again. To be fair, it’s the smell more than the taste that’s severely off-putting – think of a multi-feline cat box unchanged for weeks, and you get close.

Smoked eggs are sublime
Smoked eggs are sublime

Smoked eggs are as they sound, done either with cold or hot smoke. They too are sublime – The smoke, and as such choice of wood used, adds a lovely depth and complexity to the egg – It exemplifies egg versatility to a surprising degree.

Salt cured whole eggs
Salt cured whole eggs

Then there’s the brined or salt cured whole egg, which is an entirely different experience – good ones are lovely, like a really good egg with over the top concentrated richness and umami. The star of course, is the yolk.

This whole exercise begs the question – why would I want to do it? Well, you either love egg yolk or you don’t – If you don’t, go out and play – if you do, read on. Egg yolk has a savory, smooth taste absolutely brimming with umami, and they’re pretty, to boot. If we can create a version of that which intensifies the umami, and makes them instantly usable whenever the whim hits, it’s worth doing.

There’s also the transformational consideration – Great food is all about taking something common and doing uncommon things with them – When the whole process is stunningly simple, it’s that much sexier in the end run – And salt cured egg yolks are very sexy indeed. What you end up with is something that you can and will grate, with a gloriously bright yellow color. Preserved yolk tastes like buttery cheese – rich but not cloying – with a high level of umami added to whatever floats your boat – And it will, believe me – On pasta, pizza, salads, veggies, you name it, a little grating of this is stunningly good.

On to the process. It is a very simple thing, albeit there are a couple of versions, and we’ll cover both herein. As with all things simple in cooking, the first and most critical consideration is ingredient quality. If ever there’s a time to buy the freshest, most local eggs you can, this would be it. Since we’re merely concentrating that which already exists, mediocre will certainly breed mediocre. What you want is a stellar egg, one with a lovely orangish-yellow yolk, as fresh as you can get. Ditto for salt – you don’t need fancy, but you do want pure – high quality, coarse kosher or sea salt, with absolutely nothing else in it, is the key. Once you’ve got these together, do the deed the same day – It doesn’t take long, and that way you’re assured of taking full advantage of fresh stuff.

Set yolks in the salt cure
Set yolks in the salt cure

As for specific methodology, as mentioned, there are two primary schools – One uses just salt for the cure with passive secondary drying, while the other employs a salt and sugar cure coupled with mechanical drying in an oven or dehydrator. Both work fine, so it comes down to your predilection, and how fast you want to get done. Again, it’s so simple, it’s highly worth trying a batch of each and making your own comparison. From there, you can tweak whatever you like best to make it yours. Here’s the drill.

In both methods, the first step is the cure. You need a bunch of salt for this, depending on how many yolks you plan to do. Again, it’s super easy to do, so start with maybe four yolks, try out the results, then try the other method, pick your fave. To process a dozen yolks, you’ll need a pound of coarse kosher or sea salt. If you use the sugar/salt cure, it’s a 50%-50% blend of each – Use regular old cane sugar for that – Nothing fine or fancy needed. That’s the only difference in the cures.

Once you’ve chosen your cure, get an appropriately sized container big enough to hold how ever many yolks you want to process, as well as a bunch of cure. I like food storage containers with a snap fit lid for this – It’s gonna go in the fridge for a week, so it’s nice to have something that’ll stand up to daily use and exploration. Word to the wise, if you’ve got a bunch of folks in your house, tell them what you’re doing and point out the container – that can go a long way toward not having your stuff tossed or played with.

Pour an even layer of cure about 1/2″ thick into the container, then form a series of evenly spaced divots to receive how ever many yolks you’re gonna cure.

Have a second airtight container ready for your egg whites. Carefully separate yolks from whites, (You can and should freeze the whites for a future endeavor.) Slide a yolk into each little depression in the cure.

Now carefully cover the yolks with a nice, even layer of cure – Here again, you want about 1/2″ or so of cure over the tops of the yolks.

Seal up the container and slide it into the fridge, and leave it alone for a week.

Once your week is up, pull the yolks. Fill a small bowl with warm water, and have a clean piece of cheese cloth handy.

Cured
Cured

Take each yolk out of the cure, and brush excess cure off. Dip the cheese cloth into the water and use that to gently clean as much cure off of the yolks as you can – At this stage, they’re still a little tacky, which is just fine – Don’t freak out if the cleaning process is taking a bit of yolk with it, but again, be gentle.

Now comes the division between finishing steps.

If you’re going the passive route, then all you need is some more clean cheese cloth. Wrap each yolk in a hunk of that and tie it off with kitchen twine.

After that, hang it from a shelf in your fridge so that each yolk has good air flow all around it. Leave them there for at least a week, and two is better. When that’s done, you’re done, and you can go to town with them.

If you prefer the faster mechanical method, then you’ll set your oven or an adjustable dehydrator to 200° F. Put the yolks on a silicone pad or parchment if you’re using the oven, onto a rack if you’re going dehydrator. Let the yolks dry for 45 minutes. Remove from heat, allow to cool to room temp before refrigerating.

Grated salt cured egg yolk
Grated salt cured egg yolk

Either way you choose, the yolks, refrigerated in a non-reactive, airtight container will last at least a month, (but they won’t, ’cause you’ll scarf ’em down.)

Salt cured egg yolk on house made pizza - Si!
Salt cured egg yolk on house made pizza – Si!

Now, back there a ways I mentioned that you can tweak things, and you can – herbs and spices in the cure are par for the course, so have some fun, use your imagination, and let me know what you come up with, yeah?

This is Our Tribe

It’s Gathering time. Every year at this time, we head sixteen hundred miles due east, to the shores of Squeedunk lake, in north central Minnesota. There, at the home of Grant and Christy, we meet with friends old and new to celebrate stringed instruments, and much more – This is our Tribe.

Our office for the week
Our office for the week

We own www.luthiercom.org, a site dedicated to the building of stringed instruments, and the sharing of that arcane knowledge with anyone and everyone who wants to take part. The Gathering is an unusual thing for a modern day social networking site – A dedicated time for friends from the ether to actually meet in the real world, at a truly magical place. There is much talk, much sharing of special skills, much music played and sang, and very, very much food and drink. Monica and I are Co-Hosts and designated event Chefs, and it couldn’t be more fun to do – The Gathering is a magical place to cook.

Shopping, Squeedunk style
Shopping, Squeedunk style

Grant and Christy grow much of what they eat, so virtually all the produce we use in 5 days of cooking comes from their gardens. So do the hops with which Grant brews gallons and gallons of beer for the event. Everything else we cook with is local – This year, Ron brought a gift from Winona LaDuke – some fresh buffalo meat for us to work with, as well as his family’s Georgia sourwood Honey, (He’s also brought some amazing moonshine back from there over the years, I can tell you!) We had 14 dozen of the most amazingly fresh, local eggs as well, with deep yellow-orange yolks and true substance to them. Grant’s son Jim and his partner Shel made incredible cheddar bratwurst from venison they’d harvested last year, right on the property.

Fresh walleye, cornmeal and tempura
Fresh walleye, cornmeal and tempura

A neighbor contributed a whole bunch of fresh walleye fillets – It being Friday night, they got fried two ways – in cornmeal and tempura. Donna did panfish ceviche that was to die for. Mitch brought his rightfully famous slow cooked, pulled pork with Carolina mustard sauce, and Lis brought amazing puerco pibil, cooked in banana leaves from the tree in Grandt and Christy’s living room. This is pretty typically how it goes.

Incredibly fresh, local eggs
Incredibly fresh, local eggs

In the last couple of years, we enjoyed a ridiculous excess of shiitake mushrooms, but the weather didn’t cooperate this year, (fear not – We had all the dried and roasted/frozen we needed, as well as some fresh chicken of the woods Bonnie foraged and brought along, which is good, ’cause we feed a healthy crop of vegetarians too!.

Freshly foraged Chicken of the Woods
Freshly foraged Chicken of the Woods

We did, however, have a bumper crop of beautiful poblano chiles, and lots of traditionally harvested wild rice, so we paired those with Winona’s buffalo – They were, of course, a big hit.

Fresh poblanos
Fresh poblanos

We cook three meals a day, but they’re timed and spaced specifically to accommodate the laid-back atmosphere of the gathering. Brunch gets eaten right around noon, the midday meal slides to somewhere around 4 PM, and dinner to between 8 and 9 PM.

The Round Heeled Woman Speakeasy - Its underground, folks!
The Round Heeled Woman Speakeasy – Its underground, folks!
The back door to the Speakeasy - Leads to our room, no less!
The back door to the Speakeasy – Leads to our room, no less!

After that, it’s music on the main stage, and maybe a trip down to the Round Heeled Woman, the underground speakeasy – Yes, there’s and underground speakeasy, and in fact, the back door that establishment is a ladder down from the room we stay in – I told you, this is truly magical – It’s not uncommon for music and even lutherie activities to go in well into the wee hours, (and that’s why brunch is at noon).

Friday Dinner - Fish, of course!
Friday Dinner – Fish, of course!
It's time for grub!
It’s time for grub!
The view from the main stage
The view from the main stage
Brunch time
Brunch time

Our work ranges from brunch for a dozen, to lunches and dinners for 50 or more. Folks volunteer to pitch in, and we cheerfully put them to work on prep and cooking as needed. Chris and M and I do some planning, and most years, we more or less follow the gist of that, but as the saying goes, no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy – We’ve planned to do a coffee roasting demo for 2 years now and have yet to get around to it, and we never did salt cure egg yolks, but hey, just wait until next year.

Salt potatoes were a big hit
Salt potatoes were a big hit

We did two batches of salt potatoes that the crowd went nuts over, paired with fresh chimichurri. And our Yakitori Sauce marinated a couple of wonderful pork tender loins – Hmmm, this was a very pork-centric year, huh? There was amazing fruit, so blueberry, raspberry, kiwi, and mango Pico de Gallo all made a showing, along with mango butter and granita. Biscuits and pie dough were about as deep as the baking got, ’cause it was kinda warm this year.

Blueberry, raspberry, kiwi, and mango Pico de Gallo
Blueberry, raspberry, kiwi, and mango Pico de Gallo
Mango butter is a special treat
Mango butter is a special treat

We didn’t take enough pictures, but, hey you get the idea, right? It was another fabulous time with friends old and new – The new ones are a gas to watch – John Joyce came up from the twin cities for the first time, arriving on Thursday evening into the middle of our chaos. At first, folks can be a bit intimidated with the craziness, intimate relations, and long running jokes and shtick, but those who get it are quickly drawn in. John brought some beautifully made instruments, number 13 being his newest – She’d only been strung up for 4 days before he arrived, but she sang like an angel. I’m glad to report that JJ is now hooked and is expected back next year.

And that’s how it goes. Interested? Wherever you are, you’re welcome to join us. I guarantee you’ll be blown away in the best sense of the words. Stay tuned for next year’s dates.

 

Cascade Hops, close to ready
Cascade Hops, close to ready
Crisp and tart pears at perfect ripeness
Crisp and tart pears at perfect ripeness
Chiles at the store
Chiles at the store
Gotta have tomatoes, right?
Gotta have tomatoes, right?

Spring Rolls – Delicious and Easy

Nobody truly knows the origin of the spring roll. While we here in the U. S. see them as Asian food, they are, In fact, a worldwide treat, and not all those threads lead to the Far East. One thing’s for certain, though – Spring rolls are delicious, simple to make, and a fantastic way to clean out the fridge and garden, especially during the heady growing months of summer.

Spring Rolls a la Urban
Spring Rolls a la Urban

Spring rolls are usually dim sum, an appetizer, although as anyone knows who’s tucked into a freshly made batch, they can and should be a meal whenever the mood strikes. If we had to posit on a point of origin, China would probably get the nod. Chūn Juǎn, 春卷, means spring or egg roll, and they go back a spell in Chinese history – The popular version of things traces them back to the Jin Dynasty, which ruled from the mid third century to the early fifth. It is said that to celebrate the first harvests of spring, thin cakes would be filled with fresh vegetables and served with various sauces. Later, during the Tang Dynasty, (early 600s through early 900s), spring rolls got a bit hotter, as the advent of imported foods like chiles and garlic made their way into the Chinese culinary lexicon. By the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the thin cakes had gotten notably thinner, much more like wonton, egg roll, and spring roll wrappers are today.

Spring rolls may be fried, deep fried, steamed, or cold, depending on the fillings, region, and history they reflect. In general, the fried and steamed versions are smaller – bite or a coupla bite sized things. The fresh versions, served cold and wrapped in rice paper – those translucent, ethereal wrappers that let the beauty of fresh ingredients shine – And that’s what we’ll be featuring here today – It’s hot, in fact, record hot here in the Great Northwet, with a lot of smoke in the air from fires up in British Columbia – A perfect time for a cool, savory treat. In China, there is still a Cold Food Festival Day, so we’ll honor that.

There is great diversity on spring rolls around China – they reflect the regions they’re known for – Szechuan and Hunan versions are fiery, with sauces to match. Shandong, in the northeast, favors seafood. Fujian is river fish, crawfish, and fowl. Jiangsu might feature duck or pork, with richer sauces leaning toward Sweet and sour. And Cantonese boasts sauces and spice blends of dizzying complexity, and more beef than anywhere else in that big country.

Continue through Asia, and it’s a sure bet that every country has a spring roll, and will claim theirs as first and best, (and who knows, they well could be right). In Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, spring rolls are generically called popiah. They’re usually fresh, and almost always wrapped in rice paper. Peanut sauce becomes the most popular dip, and is absolutely delicious in several iterations – We’ll also be making that today. It’s in Vietnam that you find gỏi cuốn, the summer roll – These usually feature pork, along with fresh veggies, some of which may, (and aughta be), lightly pickled for a lovely interplay of tastes.

As Chinese and other Asian expats spread out, they brought their cuisine with them, of course – Once reestablished, they had to make some adjustments for local ingredients, as well as for the things they used at home and couldn’t find in their new environs. Thus, innovation is born – From Korea to the Philippines, all across Europe, into South America and the Caribbean, there are variations on the spring roll theme, many found as inspired street food.

Design and construction couldn’t be easier. Spring rolls lend themselves to last minute inspiration really well, and appropriate dipping sauces can be whipped up in short order, assuming you’ve got a decent pantry, (and you should – Hoisin sauce, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and various wrappers are now fairly ubiquitous at even small town grocery stores, and if not, readily on line.)

Have your mis ready when it's time to roll
Have your mis ready when it’s time to roll

When you’re picking ingredients, consider color and texture as much as taste – When you’re working with the ethereal rice paper wrapper as your canvas, everything is visible, and so those Asian cooking concepts of season, color, and flavor balances make perfect sense. Crunch might come from lettuce, cabbage, onion, carrot, water chestnut, daikon or salad radishes, fennel root, celeriac, celery, or cucumber, just to name a few. Pork, chicken, shellfish, or tofu adds a nice protein base, as well as a sweet/savory balance. Fresh mint, cilantro, watercress, or arugula can add an herbal note.

For cold, rice wrapped spring rolls like we’ll build, a quick pickle is a must do, for my my mind – pick two or three things that take nicely to pickling and give them 30 minutes or so in a nice bath – Onion, carrot, and radishes are great, and reward with a crisp tang that helps cut though heavier proteins and dipping sauces.

A quick pickle is a must
A quick pickle is a must

For lettuces, cabbages, and sprouts, light seasoning helps wake up fresh flavors. Since you’ve already got a couple vinegar notes, just a very light drizzle of avocado or sesame oil, salt, and pepper will do the trick. While all this might seem a bit busy, it really does make the difference between making something that tastes like you paid for it and a so-so meal – And I’ll guarantee the results will be well worth it.

Salt, pepper, and a splash of oil to season your crunchy stuff
Salt, pepper, and a splash of oil to season your crunchy stuff

When prepping for spring rolls, keep in mind that marrying flavors is the goal. Spend a little time making nice, uniform cuts of all your ingredients, and keep things small – fine dice, julienne, or matchstick cuts are best for most firm veggies, and a chiffonade for the leafy stuff.

Dice, or julien - Make everything fit in that spring roll
Dice, or julien – Make everything fit in that spring roll

Small bowls are perfect for arranging your mis en place. Have everything ready to go when you feel like it’s time to stuff some wrappers. Make your dipping sauces and pickles first, to allow flavors to marry, and your quick pickle to work its magic.

Wrappers do offer some variety, but again, if you’re going to do a cold presentation, rice paper is what you want. They’re cheap, don’t need to be refrigerated, and pretty easy to work with once you know the rules.
1. Set up a bowl of warm water big enough to immerse your rice wrappers in.
2. Set up a non-stick cutting board or two for rolling/stuffing
3. Dip a wrapper into the water for 5 seconds.
4. Pull the wrapper out of the water and let excess water drip off.
5. Lay the wrapper flat and let it sit for about 45 seconds, while it absorbs water and gets fully pliable.
6. Stuff away.

Rolls can certainly be made ahead, but when you’re blending fresh flavors and ingredients, eating them ASAP after construction pays off big time.

Now, about those dipping sauces. You can use dang near anything, and if in a pinch, good soy sauce, straight hoisin, or that awesome Yakitori sauce we made last week would all do just fine. But really, if you’re building, you should build some fresh sauce – For the most part, they’re easy and quick to make, and will reward with a much more expressive presence than anything store bought. Here are two different peanut sauce variants, one with fresh whole peanuts and one with peanut butter, as well as a simple ginger-soy version. The whole peanut version is amazing, but not as smooth as the peanut butter version, fyi.

The fresh peanut version
The fresh peanut version

Urban’s Fresh Peanut Sauce

1 Cup fresh roasted Peanuts
1/3 Cup Chicken Stock
1/3 Cup Coconut Milk
2 cloves Garlic
1 Tablespoon Honey
2 teaspoons Tamari
2 teaspoons Fish Sauce
1 teaspoon Tamarind Paste (1 Tablespoon Lime Juice is an OK sub)
1-2 teaspoons Sriracha

Peel, trim and mince garlic.

If your peanuts are raw, roast in a heavy skillet, 350° F oven until golden brown, about 15 minutes.

Throw everything into a food processor or blender and process until you’ve got a smooth sauce – if things are a bit too thick, add a drizzle more chicken stock until you hit desired consistency.

Taste and adjust as needed, (fish sauce, sriracha, honey).

Allow to sit at room temperature for 20-30 minutes so flavors can marry.

Will last for a good week refrigerated in an airtight container.

The smooth version of peanut sauce
The smooth version of peanut sauce

Peanut Sauce II

1 Can Coconut Milk (12 to 14 ounces, unsweetened)
1/2 Cup Chicken Stock
3/4 Cup creamy Peanut Butter (Use something natural, with a lot of oil – No cheap stuff here.)
1/4 Cup Thai Red Curry Paste
1/4 Cup Honey
2 Tablespoons Cider Vinegar
1 teaspoon Sea Salt

Add all ingredients to a heavy sauce pan over medium heat, and whisk to incorporate.

When the sauce begins to simmer, reduce heat to just maintain that and cook for 3-5 minutes, whisking constantly.

Remove sauce from heat and transfer to a non-reactive bowl.

Allow sauce to cool and flavors to marry for 30 minutes prior to serving

Will last a week or more refrigerated in an airtight container.

 

Urban’s Ginger Soy Dipping Sauce

1/2 Cup Tamari
1/4 Cup Rice Vinegar
1″ piece of fresh Ginger Root
1 Green Onion
2 Cloves fresh Garlic
1 teaspoon Agave Nectar
1 teaspoon Sesame Oil

Peel, trim, and mince garlic and ginger.

Peel, trim, and cut into roughly 1/4″ rings.

Combine all ingredients ingredients in a non-reactive bowl and whisk to incorporate.

Allow flavors to marry for 15-20 minutes prior to serving.

Will last a couple of weeks refrigerated in an airtight container.

Yakitori, Japan’s Answer to the Kebab

If it seems as if you’re seeing a trend in my posts lately, you are. I just finished rereading Mark Kurlansky’s, Salt – A World History, and find myself inspired. It’s a great read, and you should give it a spin. Like John McPhee, Kurlansky has the ability to write volumes on a seemingly mundane topic and come out with a page turner. When I first read it years ago, I wasn’t writing about food as much as I do now, so this go ’round lead to a fascinating bout of exploration. Recent posts on salt potatoes, ketchup, and fish sauce were all inspired therefrom, and this week, I bring you Yakitori, Japan’s answer to the kabab.

Hey, if they serve it at the ballpark, it's gotta be great, right?
Hey, if they serve it at the ballpark, it’s gotta be great, right?

Casual observers are often surprised by how much meat is involved in Japanese cooking. Certainly Japan did have a rather protracted period of fundamental vegetarianism. The broad adoption of Chinese Buddhism in the 7th century sealed the deal – in the late 670s, the Emporer Tenmu proclaimed a prohibition on eating animal flesh, fowl, fish, and shellfish, and Shojin Ryori was born – Japanese vegetarian cuisine as cultural touchstone. Not all of that motivation was spiritual, though – The powers that be realized that eating draft animals seriously impaired the country’s ability to adequately feed its people. Nonetheless, the edict more or less persisted for some 1200 years. Clearly, the increasing presence of westerners on Japanese shores had a bearing on the resurgence of meat eating, a process that began with Portuguese traders in the middle of the 16th century, and continues to this day.

While eating food cooked on a stick undoubtedly goes back to the harnessing of fire, the Japanese have a pretty clear recollection of when yakitori first appeared. It was in the Edo period, around the middle 1600s, and initially it was game birds roasted on sticks – quail, pheasant, pigeons and the like. As European influence increased, chickens became more common, eventually making it on to a stick as well. Beef and pork followed over time. As is oft the case, how good your yakitori was back when depended on your income and social status – While the rich ate the best stuff, the poor folks were grilling offal, and all the other little weird bits the beautiful people didn’t want. In any event, those sweet, smoky flavors, basted in soy, sake, and spices, was and remains hugely popular, and the regional variety is as rich as the country that spawned it.

Season lightly with salt and pepper before grilling
Season lightly with salt and pepper before grilling

Just covering the chicken versions of yakitori can be a bit dizzying – Our preference is for the ever popular chicken thigh version, called momo, along with negima- chicken and spring onion, and kawa – Chicken skin, (seriously, it’s amazing done up with bacon, spring onion, and water chestnuts). There’re many more, from chicken and leeks (hasami), to breast meat (sasami), chicken meatball (tsukune) and chicken wings (tebasaki). Then there’s all those former peasant versions, which are still quite popular – Kawa is skin, bonjiri is tail, shiro is guts, nankotsu is cartilage, hāto is heart, rebā is liver, and sunagimo is gizzards – nummy.

Then there’s that seasoning and/or sauce – Yakitori is typically done salty, or salty-sweet. The salty version is, more often than not, just sprinkled with sea salt and grilled, end of story. The salty-sweet, called tare, is a whole ‘nuther ballgame. In Japan, you can bet that dang near every yakitori stand and joint has their own version, and they’re all top secret. Fortunately, we can suss out the basics – soy sauce, mirin, dry sake, and some form of sweetener are added to freshly made bone stock, and that more than gets the job done. Of course there are variants – Everything from spring onion and garlic, to ginger, hot chiles, pepper, and even wasabi might be found in there. That’s good news for us, because making a very nice basic sauce is easy, and more to the point, poetic license is fully authorized.

Protein or veggies, anything you've got will make fine Yakitori
Protein or veggies, anything you’ve got will make fine Yakitori

The real beauty of yakitori is that it makes a great last minute dinner, or a perfect vehicle for fridge cleaning – You can and should use whatever you like, in whatever combinations please you. Sure, a lot of ‘real’ yakitori is either just one thing, or maybe a couple skewered together, but there’s nothing at all wrong with doing them up like little shish kebab. The bottom line is that the cooking method and saucing has as much or more to do with the overall taste as the things you decide to grill, so go wild. By that same rule, if you’re pressed for time, there’s nothing wrong at all with using straight soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, or bottle yakitori sauce, (and the former is now quite easily found in the Asian food section of your local market.

Yakitori does not require any marinating prior to cooking. You need to merely slice stuff up into bite sized pieces and shove them onto sticks. Couldn’t be easier. One note on cutting stuff – the preferred method is known as sogigiri, AKA cutting on a roughly 30° angle with the food lying flat in a cutting board. Cut toward yourself, starting at the upper left of your intended slice and working down and across. What that does is maximize surface area on relatively small chunks of food, giving more space to add sauce and heats from the grill to.

The Sogigiri cut maximizes surface area
The Sogigiri cut maximizes surface area

Speaking of grilling, while traditional yakitori is done on a brazier or charcoal grill, the desired technique employs no smoke and moderate heat, which means you folks who only have a gas grill, or a broiler in your oven, are gonna be just fine.

When skewering your goodies, do take the time to make sure every piece is snuggled right up tight against the next one – With small, relatively thin cuts of flesh and veggies, dried out food is a real possibility – Keeping them tight helps retain the baste better, and keeps things moist and juicy as well. Give whatever your skewering a light dusting of good salt and fresh ground pepper after you’ve got them done up. If you’re wanting to go all out, take a trip to the market and find fresh, seasonal veggies, meats, and poultry. Like the Vietnamese, Japanese cooks pay special attention to color and season – Spring is green, summer dark green, fall is orange and red, winter is white. Have some fun with it, and let your plates reflect your findings.

Place skewers close together to help keep things moist and juicy
Place skewers close together to help keep things moist and juicy

Brush on your basting sauce after you’ve placed the skewers on the grill. With chicken, pork, or beef, you’re going to want in the neighborhood of 5 minutes or so cooking per side, with another baste application at the turn. Again, don’t run your grill flat out – You want to cook these on medium-low heat, allowing time for things to cook through and absorb all the goodness from your baste. If you’re using a charcoal grill, set up a two zone configuration, start the skewers on the cooler side, and finish with a couple quick flips on the hot side. If you’re using wooden skewers, soak them for about half an hour prior to loading them up. Lightly oil your grill surface prior to placing skewers, to help keep them from sticking – Use a neutral vegetable oil so you don’t adulterate your taste profiles.

House made Yakitori Sauce - Black gold.
House made Yakitori Sauce – Black gold.

That sauce, that amazing sauce. We’ll start here, because this stuff really is magical. I made the batch done for this post on the same day I slow cooked a big ol’ pork roast. In the last week, that sauce went on the pork twice, into fried rice, was added to a teriyaki joint style salad dressing, and even made its way into tacos – Its that good, and that versatile. Many, many folks say that, over in Japan, cooks add to a big pot of their signature sauce every day, so that it effectively never runs out. We won’t likely go that far at home, but my oh my, do you want this in your fridge at all times. While the real deal is made with the bones from the chicken thighs you’re about to skewer, you can sub chicken stock for the water and bones if you’re in a hurry – But DO make the bone stock version just once, and you’ll be hooked – It’s super easy, incredibly delicious, and very rewarding for home cooks.

House made Yakitori
House made Yakitori

You can certainly use one sauce for all things, and well might – But we’re including some variants, to give you some ideas for future explorations.

 

Urban’s Go To Yakitori Sauce
(Makes enough for several meals, or one hell of a party)

Bones from 4 fresh Chicken Thighs or Legs
1 Cup Mirin
1 Cup Tamari
1/2 Cup Dry Sake
1/2 Cup Water (Chicken Stock, if not using bones)
6 Scallions
3 cloves fresh Garlic
1/2″ chunk fresh Ginger
2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar
1 Tablespoon Sesame Oil
1 teaspoon ground Szechuan Pepper (or anything hotter if you prefer)

Peel, trim and mince garlic.

Trim scallions and cut into roughly 1/2″ rings.

Dice ginger, (you don’t need to peel it)

On a baking pan lined with foil, under a high broiler, scatter bones and broil for about 10 minutes, turning with tongs so they brown evenly.

Transfer roasted bones to a heavy sauce pan over medium high heat.

Add all additional ingredients, stir well to incorporate, and heat through until a low boil is achieved.

Reduce heat to just maintain a steady simmer and cook until the volume of the sauce is reduced by 50% – You’ll note when you get there that the sauce coats a spoon with an even, viscous layer. The cook should take around 45 minutes to an hour, but keep an eye on things and give it an occasional stir.

Remove pan from heat and pour the sauce through a single mesh strainer into a non-reactive bowl.

Allow to cool to room temperature, then transfer to a clean glass jar. Will store refrigerated for 2 to 3 weeks.

Urban’s Pork Yakitori Sauce

1 Cup Mirin
1 Cup Tamari
1 Cup Dry Sake
2 Tablespoons Hot Chile Paste (Gochujang, wangzhihe, harissa, or Sriracha will do just fine)
2 Tablespoons Sesame Oil
2 Tablespoons Honey
1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar
3 cloves fresh Garlic

Peel, trim and mince garlic.

In a heavy saucepan over medium high heat, add all ingredients and stir to incorporate.

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer.

Allow sauce to reduce by 50%, remove from heat, run through a single mesh strainer, cool to room temp.

Store refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.

 

Urban’s Beef Yakitori Sauce
This is quite close to a typical sauce used for that deep fried wonder, Kushiage.

1/2 Cup Ketchup
2 Tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce
2 Tablespoons Tamari
1 Tablespoon Mirin
1 Tablespoon Honey
1 Tablespoon Dijon Mustard
1/2 teaspoon granulated Garlic

Mix all ingredients together and allow at least 30 minutes for the flavors to marry before brushing onto your skewers.

Refrigerate in an airtight container for storage.

 

Just in case you’re like us, and want a little something green with your skewers, here’s my swing on that great savory salad dressing you get from your local teriyaki joint.

 

Urban’s Teriyaki Joint Salad Dressing

1 Cup Mayonnaise
1/3 Cup Rice Vinegar
4 Tablespoons Agave Nectar
4 Tablespoons Sesame Oil
2 Tablespoons Yakitori Sauce
1 teaspoon granulated Garlic

Whisk all together in a non-reactive bowl, and allow flavors to marry for at least 30 minutes prior to use.

Store refrigerated for up to a week in an airtight, non-reactive container.

A Great Share from Ann Lovejoy

A celebrated author, cook, and all round good soul, who also happens to be my Sis!

Green Gardening with Ann Lovejoy
Green Gardening with Ann Lovejoy

Check out this gem from her Blog – great stuff for mixologists and cooks – these augmented syrups will shine in a bright gastrique, or when adding a hint of sweetness to dressings, sauces, marinades, and wet rubs.

This is a perfect example of a thing that separates good cooks from great ones – that little transformative twist that makes for extraordinary results.

Infused simple syrups are golden for many, many things
Infused simple syrups are golden for many, many things

Check it, give them a try, and sign up to get her blog fresh to your email so you won’t miss a one!

P.S. And if you’re a gardener and don’t have her books, well, shame on you! Get crackin’!

😁

Salt Potatoes

I have a favorite kitchen mantra that goes like this – Simple is always good, but not always easy. The implications are rife in that phrase – Simple is always good, but our inclinations sometimes work against it. And then as stated, simple just isn’t always easy, in fact sometimes it’s deceptively hard. Yet when we bow to the sublime, amazing things can happen. Salt potatoes are such a thing. Chances are you’ve never had them, and if you have, you’ve been given an origin story for the dish. It’s safe bet they’re far older than you were lead to believe, and more widely travelled to boot.

There are over 5000 potato varieties world wide
There are over 5000 potato varieties world wide

The potato, (most often Solanum tuberosum), is another gift from the Andes, specifically southern Peru and northwest Bolivia, where it was first domesticated somewhere around 8000 to 5000 BC – Yes, that means roughly 7000 to 10,000 years ago. Brought to Europe in the mid 1500s by, (yup, you guessed it), those marauding Spaniards, the spud is now cultivated worldwide, though of the roughly 5,000 varieties known around the globe, over 3,000 are still found in the Andes – Think about that the next time you’re picking between russet, gold, or reds at the store. If ever there was a crop begging to be expanded in your garden, this is it.

Initially, Europe wasn’t crazy about the potato, especially, and maybe most strangely, in the northern climes where potatoes do quite well. Part of the reticence may lie in their Solanaceae family roots, which includes some pretty dangerous plants, (and the leaves and green skins of potatoes exposed to light.) Over time, the nutritional punch made its way through the naysayers, and by the 1800s, potatoes were in heavy cultivation throughout most of Europe. A raw potato is 80% water, followed by 16% carbs, and about 4% protein, and are rich in vitamin B and C. While cooking degrades some of the nutrient value, they’re still a relatively good bang for the buck, which is why they’re the worlds forth largest food crop – And over 68% of those grown are eaten directly by humans, to the tune of an average of 72 pounds annually. These days, over 37% of world production happens in China and India.

And of all the myriad ways to cook a potato, who’d have thought to just boil them in brine? Turns out, pretty much everybody, although some lay heavier claims than others. Look up salt potatoes, and in this country, most of what you’ll find will claim that they were invented in Syracuse, New York. Now, that’s simply not true, but there is a reason that one of these far flung claims resides there – Syracuse was a major salt production and shipping center in the 19th century.

Syracuse New York, the American Venice.
Syracuse New York, the American Venice.

In the fall of 1825, the last section of the Erie Canal was completed. Running east to west, the Erie connected to the north-south running Oswego canal at a little town called Syracuse. With canals running right through town, Syracuse picked up the moniker as the American Venice. The Erie Canal had been built to move Onondaga Salt to New York City and the world, and for a while, it worked really well. As fate would have it, bunch of those old Salt workers were Irish, and they truly loved their potatoes, and regularly cooked those and corn in brine, but they didn’t invent the dish.

Papas Saladas - Andean Magic
Papas Saladas – Andean Magic

Who did remains shrouded in mystery, but it’s a good guess it started down in South America. There, among many local versions, you’ll find papas saladas, that hail from, of course, another salt mining town. In the Canary Islands, they’re papas arrugadas, (which we mentioned in our Mojo post), and in the Guérande salt producing region of France, they’re patate cuit au sel. And of course there’s many more – Chances are very good you’ll find a version in every country, and many will claim origination – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?

Papas Arrugadas - Canary Island Magic
Papas Arrugadas – Canary Island Magic

If you’ve never tried salt potatoes, trust me when I tell you it’s time. They’re a perfect summer accompaniment to grilled meats and veggies, and they’re delicious enough to stand alone. While the method and ingredients couldn’t be simpler, there is a bit of slightly complex chemistry going on under the hood of this one.

Right off hand, it’s not outrageous to question how good a potato boiled in brine will taste. The assumption is that way too much salt will get into that spud, making for an unpleasant, out of balance experience. Fortunately, that’s not what happens. Here’s the magic – One, cooking in a brine solution raises the boiling point higher than plain old water, (just as it lowers the freezing point when making ice cream), and two, the thin salt crust that forms on the spuds acts as a barrier, keep excess salt and water out. As a result, the potatoes effectively steam in their own skins, and you only end up with that thin layer of crystallized salt on the outside of the skins. That leads to an amazingly fluffy spud with a super tasty skin, just right for dipping in melted butter, gribiche, mojo, sauce diable, or chimichurri. As I mentioned, they’re stunningly good, good enough to eat as a meal, with little bowls of this and that to add as you please.

There are slightly different cooking methods around the globe – Some boil in brine and drain, (The Syracuse method), others boil the brine completely away with the spuds still in the pan, (I prefer the latter method.) They’re all worth trying, but this one will set you well for your first endeavor. As with all simple dishes, quality and freshness count – Freshly dug, local spuds from a farmers market deserve this dish – Old, soft, mealy, bulk spuds do not. Same goes for salt – This is the time to use something good – Sel de mere, Bolivian Sunrise, Himalayan pink, or Maldon – Whatever the unique signature the salt bears will play out beautifully. All salts do not have equal volume so you’ll be best served by weighing it out.

Perfect Salt Potatoes
Perfect Salt Potatoes

Salt Crusted Potatoes

1 Pound fresh new or fingerling potatoes, (You want something in the 1″ to 2″ range, and pretty uniform in size)
1 Ounce really good Salt.

In a heavy sauce pan over high heat, add potatoes, salt, and just enough water to cover the spuds.

Once you reach a boil, reduce heat to maintain a steady simmer. Cook potatoes until fork tender, about 20 minutes.

Pour off all but about a half inch of water. Put the pot back on the burner and turn heat to high.

Use a wooden spoon to roll spuds through the remaining brine as it begins to boil off. You’ll see the salt crystalizing on your spuds as this occurs – It’ll take a few minutes for the brine to disappear.

Continue gently rolling the spuds in the dry pan for another couple of minutes, until the salt crust evenly coats each potato and the skins start to get slinky wrinkly.

Remove from heat to a serving bowl and serve promptly.

So You Think You Know Ketchup?

So, you think you know ketchup, huh? Recently, we posted on Salsa, as well as the most popular derivative thereof, Sriracha, and noted therein that both those condiments actually outsell ketchup in the U.S., which might surprise some of y’all. Yet the ubiquity of American fast food concepts has done much to spread the red stuff worldwide, which then begs the question – How popular is ketchup worldwide? The answer is very.

Ketchup, it's everywhere, and growing by leaps and bounds
Ketchup, it’s everywhere, and growing by leaps and bounds

Global market research by respected industry watchers pegged ketchup as a $4.15 billion dollar commodity in 2015. With an expected annual growth rate of 3.8%, sales of ketchup worldwide are expected to hit $5.6 billion by 2022 – Billion with a B – That’s a lotta ketchup, gang. And what are the biggest trends in that friggin’ huge market? So called ‘exotic ingredient’ ketchups, and organic offerings. Interesting, no? The Big Four primary derivatives of the ketchup trade are as follows – Tomato, mushroom, fruit and nut, and ‘other.’ The latter leaves quite a bit to the imagination. Ironically, these popular trends lead us in a perhaps unexpected direction – Backwards, to the origin of the stuff.

It should come as no surprise that tomato ketchup, far and away the most popular version today, was not the first one to be so named. In England of the 1700s, sauces called catsup, ketchup, or katchup were anchovy based things, seasoned with vinegar, shallot, ginger, clove, nutmeg, lemon, pepper, and wine. The results were more like Worcestershire sauce than the stuff we know today as ketchup. The name for these lovely things comes from, of all places, Indonesia, where kecap, (pronounced ketchup), means a dark, thick, soy based sauce, (And remains immensely popular there to this day). The leap from the East back to England occurred because that’s where the Brits got a lot of those exotic spices they threw in with them salty little fish. And not surprisingly, derivations of the stuff came out featuring, you guessed it, mushrooms, fruit, and nuts.

Tomato ketchup, on the other hand, took a while longer to circulate, as the ‘love apple’ was a native to Central and South America, and as such didn’t appear in Europe until (probably) the Spaniards brought them back over the big pond in the 16th century. Tomatoes were readily embraced by most countries around the Mediterranean, which it took somewhere around 150 years or so to spread and become accepted. That acceptance was not so forthcoming from the Northern Europeans, including the British, (who initially though the fruit to be poisonous). The first acknowledged tomato ketchup recipe came from the American colonies, during the revolutionary war, and the first published version came out while Lewis and Clark were traipsing west, in 1804, by physician/horticulturist James Mease. His version salted sliced tomatoes and let them sit for a day, then added mace, allspice, shallot, and brandy, and cooked it all down. Meade claimed the French loved the stuff, which is patently bullshit – More likely, given the spicing he employed, he’d been handed something from the Caribbean, because it sounds a lot like Sauce Creole. In any event, the stuff caught on in a big way, and the rest is history.

Ketchup, especially the tomato variety, came about as one way to preserve things through the cold months, and frankly, that’s why I’m writing about it here and now. A whole bunch of us have gardens, and what is almost guaranteed to be one of those crops you sew and then some time later are offering to any friend, neighbor, or willing perfect stranger you can find, due to relative overabundance? Yep, love apples. As such, it’s a great time to visit some recipes for the stuff. Sure, there are ‘natural’ and organic versions out there in the stores, as well as those exotics styles – But frankly, while the natural stuff is far better for you than the old standard, they’re not exactly using fresh, home grown tomatoes that could and should be several varieties – And that means you can make better at home. And as for the exotics, take a look at the prices, and you quickly discover that in this regard, you can make better at home for a hell of a lot less dough. So let’s do that.

First off, let’s address the elephant in the room – There are two, when it comes to ketchup making at home.
1. Making ketchup takes an incredible amount of tomatoes – True and not true – If you’re wanting to can a whole bunch in order to enjoy house made through the cold months, then yes, it will take a lot of tomatoes. If you’ve got them, and you’re of a mind to preserve, then you should definitely throw ketchup into the mix, along with whole and sauced. That said, what you’ll see below are small batch recipes that don’t take a whole lot of tomatoes – And frankly, making a batch to last a week or two is well worth the effort, especially if you’re growing your own.
2. Making ketchup at home takes forever – Well, not forever, but all day, yeah – As mentioned, the recipes we’ve got for you here are small batch stuff, and can easily be done in under an hour or twos worth of actual work, but some of the prep and cooking does take a long time – We’re radically changing the stuff we start with, and that just can’t be rushed – So, you’d best be planning for a whole day, but it’ll be a great day, guaranteed, (and you can do other stuff, or even take off while things are cooking, if you use a slow cooker, as noted). And finally, if you’re canning, it’s gonna be an all day thing, guaranteed – And always review proper method and cooking times when doing so.

House made tomato ketchup - All other bow before it.
House made tomato ketchup – All other bow before it.

Classic Tomato Ketchup
2 28 oz cans Peeled Tomatoes, (Any version is fine so long as they’re peeled)
3/4 Cup Distilled White Vinegar
1/2 Cup Bakers Sugar
1/2 Cup Water
1 1/2 teaspoons Pickling Salt
1 teaspoon Onion Powder
1/2 teaspoon granulated Garlic
1/4 teaspoon ground White Pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground Mustard
1/8 teaspoon Celery Salt
1 whole Clove

In a slow cooker set to high, add the tomatoes. If you found ground, peeled tomatoes, you’re good to go. If you have whole, or crushed, you need to process them first. Pulse with an immersion blender to achieve a nice, rough sauce consistency.

Rinse each can with a quarter cup of water and add that to the cooker, along with all other ingredients.

Cook uncovered for 8 to 10 hours, giving the sauce a good stir roughly every hour.

When the sauce is reduced in volume by roughly 50%, and is quite thick, turn off the heat and process the sauce again with the stick blender until very smooth.

Run the sauce through a single mesh strainer, into a nonreactive mixing bowl, removing any bits of skin, seeds, and the clove.

Allow to cool to room temperature.

Taste and adjust salt and pepper balance as needed.

Transfer to a clean glass jar and refrigerate. It’ll last a good week, (if it survives that long.)

Mushroom ketchup hardens back to Medieval English sauces
Mushroom ketchup hardens back to Medieval English sauces

Mushroom Ketchup (NOTE: This recipe requires advanced prep for the shrooms, so plan accordingly)

1 Pound fresh Mushrooms, (Portobello, Shiitake, button, or wild, of course)
2 Cups Water
1 1/3 Cups Champagne Vinegar
2 medium Shallots
1/2 Ounce dried Mushrooms
2 Tablespoons Dry Sherry
1 Tablespoon Pickling Salt
1 small clove Garlic
6 Tasmanian Pepperberries
2 whole Cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground Ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground Black Pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground Nutmeg
1 Bay Leaf (California or Turkish as you prefer)

The day before you plan to cook the sauce, carefully wipe shrooms clean with a damp cloth, and trim away any bruised bits.

Slice mushrooms to roughly 1/4″ thick. Toss shrooms into a nonreactive mixing bowl, add the tablespoon of Pickling Salt and toss gently to incorporate.

Cover the bowl with a clean, dry cloth and allow shrooms to sit for 24 hours. Stir gently 3 or 4 times through the rest. Note that the shrooms will become quite dark during this process, and that A-OK.

An hour or two before the end of the 24 hour rest, heat 2 cups of water to about 110° F. Pour that into a mixing bowl and add the dried mushrooms. Stir to incorporate and let them steep until their nice and soft.

Trim, peel and mince garlic and shallots.

With a slotted spoon, transfer the reconstituted dried shrooms to a blender vessel or food processor. Carefully pour the soaking liquid into the blender, leaving any pooled gritty stuff out of your pour. Process the blend into a smooth mix, and transfer that to a large sauce pan.

Dump the salted, fresh shrooms into the blender, (don’t rinse it first), and process that to a smooth mix, then add them to the sauce pan.

Add 1/3 cup vinegar, the garlic, and shallots to the un-rinsed blender vessel and process to a smooth purée. Add this to the sauce pan, along with the rest of the ingredients, except the sherry, and stir to incorporate.

Bring the mix to a simmer over medium high heat, then lower heat to barely maintain the simmer. Cook for 1 to 1/12 hours, until the Mushrooms are very soft and the sauce has thickened notably.

Now’s the time to test for proper consistency – remove sauce from heat and take a spoonful of the sauce and place it on a clean saucer. Let that sit for 10 minutes – If at that point the sauce has remained homogeneous, it’s thickened enough. If a notable amount of liquid leaches out of the sauce, more cooking is needed. Continue cooking for another 15 minutes and retest until you reach proper thickness.

Run the sauce through a single mesh strainer to remove the whole spices, then process in a blender or with a stick blender to a nice, smooth consistency.

Return the sauce to a clean sauce pan over medium high heat and heat through, stirring constantly. When the sauce simmers again, add the sherry. Cook on a low simmer for 5 minutes, then remove from heat.

Transfer sauce to clean, sanitized half pint jars and process in a hot water bath for 15 minutes, (Again, consult CFHFP for more specifics and altitude adjustments).

Allow sauce to marry for at least 8 weeks before use. The well sealed jars will last all winter, (but probably not!)

Green walnuts are a summer crop that make a wonderful earthy kethcup
Green walnuts are a summer crop that make a wonderful earthy kethcup

Walnut Ketchup
This one goes way back to ketchup’s English roots, right down to those salty little fish. It’s admittedly a lot of work, but the reward is huge. Canned in half pint jars, they’re an amazing house warming gift – The taste of the 17th century brought to life. Green walnuts are a summer crop, usually available only from June through August, and maybe into September some years, so plan ahead.

45-50 Green Walnuts
3 1/2 Cups Cider Vinegar
1 1/2 Cups Malt Vinegar
1 Cup Dry Sherry
1 large Sweet Onion
1/4 Cup grated Horseradish, (straight – not mixed ‘sauce’)
2 ounces Anchovies (in oil or salt)
2 teaspoons ground Black Pepper
1 teaspoon dried ground Chile (hot or mild as you like)
1″ fresh Ginger root

The tough stuff goes first! Opening walnuts, especially green ones, isn’t easy, and it’s messy – Keep in mind that wood stains are made with these guys, so dress and guard your kitchen surfaces accordingly – They WILL stain hands, counters, etc, and it will NOT come off your skin! Some folks use a knife, others a hammer – Choose your weapon and cut, crack, or crush those things.

Place nuts in a nonreactive container, (a 1/2 gallon mason jar is perfect), and cover completely with the vinegars. Tightly cover your container and let them steep for a week – 7 full days.

On Day 8, transfer nuts and liquor to a large stock pot over medium high heat. Add all remaining ingredients and stir to incorporate. When the mix starts to boil reduce heat to maintain a vigorous simmer and cook for 45 minutes.

Remove sauce from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Process the sauce with a stick blender to a nice, smooth consistency.

Run the sauce through a single mesh blender to remove any solids.

Carefully pour into clean, sanitized bottles or jars with air tight lids and seal.

Will last a good 6 months stored in a cool, dry, dark place.

Cranberry ketchup is amazing on pork, chicken, or roasted Brussels sprouts
Cranberry ketchup is amazing on pork, chicken, or roasted Brussels sprouts

Cranberry Ketchup
2 Cups Canberries, (fresh or frozen)
11/2 Cups Raw Cider Vinegar
1/4 Cup Balsamic Vinegar
1 large Navel Orange
1 small Sweet Onion
2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar
1/4 teaspoon Allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground Black Pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground Black Cardamom
1/8 teaspoon Sea Salt

Peel, trim and fine dice onion.

Zest and juice orange.

In a large sauce pan over medium high heat, add cranberries, onion, and cider vinegar, stir to incorporate. Reduce heat to maintain a bare simmer and cook until cranberries are popped and soft, about 4-6 minutes.

Remove sauce from heat and process with a stick blender to a smooth consistency.

Return sauce to heat and add balsamic, orange juice and zest, allspice, cardamom, pepper, and salt. Stir to incorporate. Cook on a low simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, until sauce is notably thickened.

Remove from heat and process again to smooth the sauce out. You can run it through a single mesh strainer if you prefer a liquid, smooth sauce, or leave it rustic – It’s incredible on chicken, or pork, or roasted Brussels sprouts.

Store in a clean, nonreactive container, refrigerated. Will last a couple weeks, easy.